Au Revoir Les Enfants, 1987
Directed by Louis Malle
The martyrdom of Père Jacques Hamel in Normandy on 26 July has moved the Church in France and around the world to recall the heroic virtue that so many Catholic priests have shown over the centuries in the face of evil. The sacrifice of another courageous French priest lies at the heart of the acclaimed 1987 film Au Revoir Les Enfants (Goodbye Children), by French New Wave director Louis Malle.
A quiet but powerful tribute to the heroism of a priest and an elegaic, coming-of-age story of a French schoolboy in 1944, Au Revoir Les Enfants won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
The picture holds a deserved place on the Vatican’s list of 45 of the most important films ever made.
The film tells the true story of Julien Quentin, a 12-year-old boy at a Carmelite boarding school in occupied France during the Second World War, and his budding friendship with a mysterious new boy, Jean Bonnet.
The character of Julien is based upon Malle himself as a child. So deeply affected was Malle by his wartime experiences, it took more than 30 years for him to bring them to the screen. The famous critic Roger Ebert recalled Malle clasping his hands at the film’s premiere, weeping, saying: “This film is my story. Now it is told at last.”
In the winter of 1943-44, with the terrible net of Hitler’s Final Solution closing in upon the Jewish people of Europe, and the Allies laying plans to cross the English Channel and liberate the continent in June, Julien’s school is a fragile sanctuary of peace.
While the boys eagerly follow the war news and plot the progress of the Allies on a map, they have only a vague idea of the horrors that lie outside, and of the dangers their valiant headmaster, Père Jean, is daily holding at bay. The school is austere, the discipline strict and the food scarce and simple, but an atmosphere of joy and love nonetheless pervades the community.
Sensing in Jean Bonnet a boy of formidable intelligence and imagination to match his own, Julien is immediately drawn to him. But in the ways of children, his desire for friendship is expressed at first by teasing and provoking him mercilessly. Slowly, however, a real friendship and deep bond develops between the two, and Julien uncovers Jean’s real identity.
From the discovery of this secret, the film steadily draws us into a heightened atmosphere of anxiety and tension, and a feeling of increasing helplessness, as the actions of the various characters – wonderfully human in their weaknesses and virtues – put into motion a tragic series of events.
Malle is a true filmmaker, in that he shows, rather than tells, the story. The stunning, simple beauty of the school and its rural setting – the rhythm of its monastic life – the ecstatic sounds of water, music, birds, bells and prayer – the clanging of cutlery on the dinner table and the clamour of children’s voices – form a vivid symphony of life in Julien’s young world.
The energy and exhilaration of young boys and the wonder and magic of childhood – when getting lost during a treasure hunt in the woods is both frightening and thrilling – is brilliantly evoked.
The film is imbued with a deep sense of the “language of the body” and of the sacramentality of the Catholic faith. Malle captures the ordinariness of daily life at the school – the prayers, baths, meals, lessons, Masses, games and chores – with unhurried pacing and affectionate detail. The hilarity, drama and chaos created by very human boys are blended with an underlying sense of harmony, of rightness with each other and with the world that the serenity of the Carmelite monastery seems to bestow.
In a quietly beautiful scene when one character is in trouble, the boys quickly gather together to pray the Our Father for him; for all their scoffing, their faith and piety – formed by the daily example of the monks – is real and true. Although the boys irreverently refer to the Carmelites as “monkeys”, they have a deep respect for these men, who model Christ-like faithfulness, care and fatherhood to them.
A number of outstanding scenes also highlight the complexities of war and the importance of character. The unexpected goodness and nobility of some of the German soldiers and officers of the district, coupled with the selfishness and treachery of some of the local French people, underscore the truth that no matter how morally corrupt his government or his nation’s laws may be, the human person is always free in his own soul to choose good or evil.
Julien and his schoolmates are drawn to this battle of good and evil that is waging in the world outside. Underneath their rivalries and childish squabbles, the boys are growing up, thirsting for adventure, identity and love. As they play Crusader knights versus Saracens, they long to be men – to be lovers, warriors and heroes.
The rare feminine presence upon the school grounds is greeted exuberantly as the boys begin to experience the beauty and otherness of women in a new and overwhelming way. In secret, they thrill to the erotic romances of the Arabian Nights and dream of leaving school and joining the Resistance.
As temptations of lust, envy and greed start to beset the boys, the harried but kindly monks do their best to teach, admonish and encourage them towards honour and virtue. The need of children for adult guidance to understand the consequences of sin is shown with great compassion and clarity.
What begins as a small temptation of greed – to hoard and exchange on the black market precious jars of jam and other delicacies sent to the boys by their wealthy parents, rather than share them – ends in devastating consequences that Julien and his friends could never have imagined.
This small episode and its aftermath brilliantly sum up the film’s larger motif of disruption – not only the disruption of childhood and of families caused by the war, but spiritual disruption – the rupture of men’s hearts, of their relationships with God and with each other.
Larger conflicts may involve armies and nations, but they only reflect the battle man must wage against the selfishness of his own heart.
And yet rupture is part of the human condition; it is something man cannot heal without divine help. This theme is introduced in one of the film’s earliest scenes, when a shy Jean is brought to his new dormitory.
As we sense his loneliness and loss, his eyes are drawn to a luminous statue of the Madonna and Child. The consoling face of Our Lady represents Jean’s unseen mother.
But her face also points to the possibility of a love and a home that are greater and more permanent than the earthly places and affections to which we cling, and which can so easily be broken, betrayed, or taken from us.
Au Revoir Les Enfants can be placed in the tradition of other outstanding wartime dramas, such as The Pied Piper and Forbidden Games, in which war is seen through the innocent eyes of children.
But as the title makes clear, it is also a film about saying goodbye – to childhood, to innocence, to family and home – to take up the responsibilities of manhood; in other words, to take up the cross.
The Carmelite priest Fr Lucien-Louis Bunuel, Malle’s real-life headmaster upon whom he based the character of Père Jean, was arrested by the Gestapo in January 1944. During his interrogation, Fr Lucien refused to accept the unjust and inhuman laws Hitler and a compliant French government had imposed upon France, saying “I know only one law: that of the Gospel and Charity.”
The film’s closing scenes offer a stunning testament to this higher law of love.
As a cloud of uncertainty descends upon the small community and a terrible fate is foreshadowed, an act of mercy becomes a small, defiant symbol of hope. In the faces of the characters, we glimpse the promise that goodbye is not forever.
The daily, faithful struggles of the monks, the ideals of their school and their love for the children entrusted to them have all borne witness to the One whose love conquered death. It is the memory of this love that remains when we say “goodbye” to this extraordinary film.
Recordatio, Latin for ‘recollection’, ‘memory’ or ‘to recall’, best describes what this cinema club hopes to achieve, bringing films from the past into the present, so that they may continue to transform and lead us into the future. The Recordatio Cinema Club is made up of young Catholics who gather once a month to watch a film and then reflect upon it. Rather than the latest blockbuster, we seek to watch the greats from the past, films that are lesser known to young people today but are worth remembering. They are films that have the power to build up the culture either by simply being authentically good entertainment, or by offering within them the seeds of the divine; transcendentals that help to shape who we are and thus help us to shape the culture. A good film shouldn’t simply disappear from our consciousness once the credits have ceased, but should be thought about, talked about, and shared with others; hence we aim to offer written reflections on each film we encounter. The Recordatio Cinema Club aims to be more than simply a movie club, as it aims to change the world by bringing individuals to an encounter, where one encounters truth, beauty and goodness, and allows these transcendentals to shape and form who we are, how we see the world and how we are entertained.